Tag Archives: college

In Honor of Sochi: When you say “Russia,” I think “dill”

It’s Olympics time. What does that mean for my household?

Well, even if an epic snowstorm in the Southeast weren’t sitting on top of my house, forcing me away from going into my day job and opening up dozens of extra hours for Olympic watching, I’d still be glued to the TV whenever I had the chance.  You have no idea. I loooooooove me some Winter Olympics.

As the world knows, the ’14 games are in Sochi, Russia. Where’s Sochi?  On the Black Sea. Where it doesn’t really look that cold and where the downhill slopes are coming in at 60 degrees (a bit too warm for good snow).   And where things aren’t entirely put together all neat and tidy, as a flood of amusing tweets showed last week when journalists started arriving.

That’s old news.
As is Shaun White’s disappointing 4th place finish on the half-pipe, but at least we can feel good about the guy, despite the media hype that he’s cold & not un-chill for a skater dude.

But I digress. I came here tonight to tell you about “that time I was in Russia.”  Yeah, the real one!  I’m still pretty surprised myself.

As I finished up my undergraduate degree, I signed on for a 10-week mission trip traveling through both halves of Europe.  As a choir, we prepared spirituals and other music to sing in public, in recital halls, in churches, on street corners. And in every town, we met (and often stayed with) locals – my favorite part.

In late June, we spent about 3 weeks in Eastern Europe, Belorussia, and Russia. I’ll save the long versions of the story for another day, but here are a few highlights:

Um, monuments.  Russians know how to do spectacle. You haven’t seen a WW2 monument until you’ve seen the ones Russia built. Or the countries under Soviet rule.  My first experience with this came in Brest (Belorussia), where the pock-marked brick fortress outside the city held off the Germans …. for a bit.

The fortress in Brest, Belorussia. The pockmarks on the front are from the Germans' machine guns during the WW2 attack.
The fortress in Brest, Belorussia. The pockmarks on the front are from the Germans’ machine guns during the WW2 attack.

But if you really want to see grandeur, check out the statue within the fortress park commemorating the Russian soldiers.  This photographer’s shot captures a gigantic granite solder crawling for water; behind him a huge head stares across the plains.

You haven't seen WW2 memorials until you've traveled East.
You haven’t seen WW2 memorials until you’ve traveled East.

Russians love dill. It’s unnatural, and if I never see that herb again, it’ll still be too soon.  We ate tomatoes and cucumbers sliced and sprinkled with dill,  we had fish with dill, they put dill on slices of raw pork fat (ew), the borscht was probably garnished with dill.    Beets and dill.  Dill and cucumbers.  Dill on dill.   It was a dill-pocalypse.

21 Disturbing Examples of Russia’s Dill Addiction

When we weren’t being hounded by the herb of doom, our hosts served us warm fizzy water (cold stuff is bad for you, so they said), hot tea and coffee (in high summer), and the most delightful fruit juice called, generically, “sok” – which is just a term for “juice.” (The O is long, so “sok” sounds like “soak.”)

Sok, or "juice," is thicker and sweeter than what we have in America.
Sok, or “juice,” is thicker and sweeter than what we have in America.

I’ve asked my Russian friends how it’s made; the best I could get was this:   layer a big jar (like a sun-tea jar) with fresh fruit and sugar. Pour in boiling water. Immediately can the jar or cap & sterilize it, and then flip it upside down. Leave for several months.  When you open the jar, the resulting liquid is smooth and thick, like sunshine in a jar.  I’ve never experienced anything like it apart from our time with people in Russia, Belorussia, and to an extent Poland.  (I Google’d it… came up with a recipe in a Slavic language I can’t read….. my search goes on…..)

It was in Russia that I had my first Magnum bar — that was heaven on earth.  You can buy them in America now, but back then, a plane ticket across the Pond was the price for enjoyment.  They sold them in Western Europe too; I just happened to eat my first Magnum in Moscow, I think. Or maybe Smolensk….. hafta check my trip journal.

I shamelessly borrowed this image from the Magnum website.  Soooo gooood.
I shamelessly borrowed this image from the Magnum website. Soooo gooood.

But aside from meeting many very kind people (including several pastors with stories of years lost to labor campus because the Soviet Union pounded on churches) and learning to eat fish for breakfast (sometimes) (it was gross), I’ve got some weird stories too.

Like the time I peed in No Man’s Land at midnight-thirty, a Bathroom Stop Without A Country.

Some explanation:

Somebody took a picture of their border crossing from Poland into Brest..... so I would have gone through this one too, I suppose.
Somebody took a picture of their border crossing from Poland into Brest….. so I would have gone through this one too, I suppose.

— Although the Soviet Union had fallen by the time I went to Russia, all travel required specific visas. My passport from that year is stamped with plant of border crossings – the EU hadn’t kicked in yet either.   We discovered (as a group) that our contact in Russia who set up meetings for us miscalculated our visa dates and we were scheduled to be in the country a day longer than our visas allowed.  And you haven’t seen anything like a border crossing into the former Eastern bloc (at that time) ….. lines could last for hours.  Somehow our team leaders knew a way to cut us into the front of the line. I’m so happy we didn’t get shot……

–No Man’s Land is the half mile or so of neutral land in between two countries, the Neutral Zone if you will.

-Eastern Europe really isn’t into rest stops or public bathrooms. In fact, we were munching a quick lunch as a team in far eastern Poland when our team leader explained that travel day pit stops would take place “in the woods” from now on.  That was a …..bonding experience…..?   “Boys take one side of the road, girls go to the other.”

So what do you do when 1) you’re not supposed to be in a country today but 2) you have a church service to do anyway, so 3) you  decide to do your border crossing in the middle of the night in hopes that the border guards will either be more forgiving or at least sleepy …. which puts you on the road for an overnight 8-hour marathon drive from western Russia to Brest, Belorussia, and to top it all off, it’s nearly 2am and  4) you all really gotta pee?

Well, you go in No-Man’s Land!

No Mans Land

The vans pulled through the border crossing (always a bit tense), and as soon as the guard house was out of sight, we pulled over.  It was quite cold, despite being high summer. The roadside was incredibly dark;  I’d been sleeping (since I volunteered to stay up through the graveyard shift later to help keep the drivers awake) and I groggily stumbled down into the deep side ditch to take care of business.  We weren’t going to have any other opportunities for quite a while.

I gotta admit, we did giggle a little later.  It’s not every day you get to break international law…. I mean, I’m sure you’re not supposed to use boundary land as a restroom.

I don’t remember much else from that night — we saw the most glorious full moon rise around 4am, as we passed through the flat eastern lands of Belorussia.  The driver and I were both dangerously close to nodding off by 5am, when we switched off and I crawled in back for a much-needed nap.

By 7am, we pulled into the outskirts of Brest to find an actual bathroom (a public outhouse; it was disgusting) and eat the only snack we could find: bars of thick, creamy, fat-filled Russian ice cream. (Seriously – the fat content in that cream was off the chain – you could feel it on your tongue.)

Of course, I’m leaving out all of the wonderful parts of traveling in the  East — to see St Basil’s cathedral with my own eyes, buying matryoshka dolls and chess sets in the outdoor Moscow market (come over and I’ll show them to you), singing a cappella in the amazing Smolensk cathedral, looking out across Moscow from our hotel room on the 8th floor.  It was a great experience, and I’d love to retrace many of those steps.  But I’ll stick to indoor toilets…..

Bonus story: I made only two phone calls home during the 10 weeks I was away — my, how life was different before everyone had a cell phone!) — so it was from  that Moscow hotel room that I rang my dad and my boyfriend both at 4am to say “I’m still alive!” (we’d been on the road 4 weeks) and “I love you!”   My dad was stoic and surprised that I would call him just to say I was fine.  My boyfriend (who is now my husband) was a lot more excited once he woke up enough to realize what was happening, but I’m not sure he ever quite forgave me for the 4am wake-up call. 🙂 


Why I hate the “freshman dorm”

The older I get, the more I appreciate God’s emphasis on mentoring.  Life is far too complicated to be “taught” like a classroom subject. Sure, “tests” appear pretty frequently from our Master Teacher but clearly the people older than I are supposed to be my “study buddies.”

Many skills-based careers still depend on the master/apprentice relationship. Carpenters, electricians, and machinists (among others) even still use those medieval terms: journeyman, master.

I recently read that tattoo artists learn their complex trade by apprenticing themselves to a master artist who takes full responsibility for the younger’s training and development as an artist. When the apprentice has exhausted his master’s knowledge and skills, he moves on, perhaps to found his own shop.

Artists and musicians are part of a centuries-old system of mentorship. Professional trade the names of their teacher like Olympic medals or badges of approval. “Well, I got to take a master class with so-no-so before he died.”  “Ooooh! Really? Wow!” *eyes open* Even musicians trained outside the traditional system proudly acknowledge sessions spent doodling or jamming informally with the musicians they most admire. “I learned those sweeps from Paul! He was chillin at my buddy’s house before a show so we hung out….”

For most disciplines, a “good education” must be mediated through someone else’s guidance and experience.  Wise students attend colleges where a well-trained faculty invest themselves in training students well and directing their entrance into the discipline. So it is with life.

If I went to college thinking I would get answers to my deep questions, I was disappointed…. I didn’t.  I only got more questions. Ditto with master’s degree #1.  Masters #2 *did* provide a wealth of foundational material for my thinking, but I think that had as much to do with my being older the second time around as it did with any particular course content.  Education is never about the content….

Let’s be honest:  Life is tough. We all need each other — isolation is deadly — but we need these people ahead of us on the journey even more. We need these storehouses of experience to open themselves up for us to rummage around and find what we need as we need it. And it’s not just the “big questions” of life that fall under Paul’s injunction that”the older teach the younger” — think of what humanity would lose if Southern women stopped teaching their daughters how to make fluffy biscuits and sweet tea! 

Several of my former students and friends just moved thousands of pounds of STUFF into their dorm rooms at college. An overwhelming number of them now live on entire halls or buildings crammed with hundreds of freshmen controlled by a scattering of RA’s (who are nearly as inexperienced at life and the universe and everything).

Doesn’t the very concept of “the freshman dorm” cut the legs out from under God’s vital process of life-mentoring? 

Sure, college classes provide plenty of intellectual discipleship into a professor’s underlying worldview … but dumping all the newbies into one building to muck along on their own as best they can (aside from the “freshman life seminars”) suggests we don’t really care much about our freshmen …. or deem them capable of much more their first year besides public drunkenness and a need to be sequestered from the quieter, calmer, older student population who find freshmen too irritating to keep close by.

I critique BJU a lot, but I deeply appreciate now the way they nestled the freshmen into already-existing communities of older students. Every room contained a jr/sr, a sophomore, and a freshman (usually). Having those older, wiser people around me in abundance made a whale’s difference in my freshman year — though I recognize that only now. The University purposefully created ‘spaces’ in the student organizations where freshmen became woven into the fabric of university life instead of being left to clump together in one lump of inexperience. Looking back, I can’t remember the names of all the upperclassmen girls who reached out to me in my first months at college, but I can’t tell you how much their stability and wisdom protected me from a lot of stupidity and mistakes. (And loneliness.)

Unintentionally, NCS ended up following a similar pathway as we designed the high school.  I noticed my first year there that the 8th graders become so much more mature by hanging out with high school kids all the time. We have seen the older kids take an intentional role in raising up younger students who know how to act right; who treat their classmates with patience; who treat a lady with respect; who learn what to do at a formal dance. We’d drive those relationships all the way down into the elementary school if we could.  It’s so good.

Almost by definition, young adults lack the experience they need to actually “make it” in adult life. Dropping all the young’uns into a single building where they can be managed, controlled, and kept away from the mainstream population robs them of so much that ought to be part of a college kid’s dorm experience!  You don’t learn wisdom and life skills from classroom lectures; it comes as someone older than you teaches wisdom “when you’re lying down, and when you rise up; in your goings-out and comings-in; as you walk along and when you eat” (so says Deuteronomy 6, more or less).

Isolation from older, wiser adults is a systemic flaw in the American college system.